Essay · Memoir

Vision Corrections

My stepmother informed me by email that my father was in critical condition after a fall occasioned by a stroke. He is in his eighties. Sorrow did not overtake me. This is not a Hallmark card.

The week prior to his fall, my father had called me in the middle of the night to hurl raging insults at me. Seriously. Barely hello. I was a monster, evil, the worst piece of this and that, etc., spiked up in hateful expletives — in French.

He doesn’t do that often, not even once a year. The problem was that, on that first night of October 2022 when my cell rang, I felt utterly defenseless. I had been sound asleep, farther into safety than the Atlantic Ocean and the entire North American continent. A daughter made
new by exile. In that state, I had no need for psychological defenses.

Before I could even think of hanging up on him, he had done much damage.

Much like a dictator does, or a recent US president.

Within minutes, my left eye was in pain. I experienced sudden vision loss like when I was four. Or six. I couldn’t remember exactly. I told my optometrist, who told me that the link between trauma and vision was now well-established and who explained that the sight difference between my left and right eyes was now so large that my brain had difficulty balancing the two extremes.

I did not expect that my father would still have the power to damage my body. I pondered what I had written in my essay, Revenge Savings. I decided enough was enough and booked a flight from Los Angeles to Bordeaux.

When I arrived, my father was up and walking about. His wife lifted his shirt to show me that his back was still purplish-black from the fall. I told him that I was losing my vision in my left eye, just like when he was going to make me love me since my mother would not when I was four, or six, no five, maybe, at the time when he and his new wife were getting engaged.

No end-of-life apologies for me but I did not back down. I went for the metaphorical kill. I even managed to, in real-time, point out his reactions. Reactions that “perpetrators of wrongdoing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior,” Reactions which can be summed up as Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.

On the day of my departure, I stopped by his house one last time. My father refused to come out of his bedroom. His enabling wife said that he wasn’t feeling well. She would not allow me into his room out of concern for his health.

Cowardice!

The vision loss in my left has now stabilized. I do hope that this healing sticks.

Essay · Memoir

Secrets of WWII 

I recently visited Secrets of WWII at the Reagan Library There, I explored “over a hundred rare and unique stories and hundreds of artifacts” that were “not even made public until recently.” Particularly touching to me were the panels dedicated to the horses, birds, and dogs who had been forced into the war. What I saw and read, however, felt somewhat removed from my personal life experience until I happened upon a glass case that contained a German helmet and a telephone that the Germans used to communicate.

“They forgot the Waffen SS boots,” my grandmother and I thought. « Les bottes noires des boches, tu les vois ? »

My grandmother Marinette, deceased for three decades, was standing with me by that glass case, asking me, in French, if I could see the black boots. No longer was I standing in the lower level of the Reagan Library in 2022: Marinette and I were both frozen in dread in the cellar of the family live-in store in the early seventies in a remote village of the Auvergne region of France.

Marinette suffered from then-undiagnosed PTSD, the result of her active role in the French Resistance. For her, WWII had never ended, and to hide us both from the Nazis, she would rush me down to the cellar throughout my youth and well into the early eighties. From the diminutive, street-level rectangular window, she could still see the dreaded boots march by the store.

My maternal grandparents Marius and Marinette were both members of the French Resistance. Records about their service are archived in the French Defense Historical Service in Vincennes, near Paris. They had put themselves in grave danger, and many of their friends had died. Marinette’s closest cousin Yvonne, also a Resistance member, had been caught and deported. She miraculously survived Ravensbrück from August 1944 until May 1955. Here is a link to a short story that I wrote about Yvonne https://thecentifictionist.home.blog/2021/05/10/yvonnes-parakeets/

 My maternal grandparents also raised me for the first few years of my life starting in the mid-sixties. Twenty years after the end of WWII, they still lived and worked in the same tailoring shop in the village’s main square by the 12th-century church. Their trusted friends from their time in the Resistance continued to stop by to reminisce around homemade pastries and tart cherry liquor. They told stories high in color in patois Auvergnat, which is a local dialect of the Occitan language, the language of the French peasantry. My grandfather, who hailed from the south of France (an area with a different dialect of Occitan) was not as fluent in patois Auvergnat as his wife and fellow résistants, so he’d switch to his southern-accented French when the actions recounted required words said in rapid-fire.  

My grandmother was especially vocal about les collabos. Those people were either supporting or full members of La Milice, which was a paramilitary organization created in January 1943 by the collaborationist French government to combat la Résistance. Those were people she had also grown up with. They were even more dangerous than les boches, she said, because you were prone to assume that you could trust them, but you could not.

Silent dread set in once their résistant friends left. My grandparents would usually drown themselves in work, then, while I often went up to the attic to scrutinize the remnant of the bleach-resistant blood stains on the unpolished pine floorboards. The attic was where they had hidden wounded résistants and British paratroopers. Tonton Mabrut, head of the resistance for the region and a medical doctor by profession, would sneak in under cover of night to remove exploding bullets from mangled limbs. My grandmother was the one to assist in the operations because my grandfather would faint at the sight of blood.

Once my grandparents retired, they sold the store to move into a brand-new house. Perhaps they hoped that the physical move could make them new also, that it could remove their dread and even the painful parts of the lives that they had lived so far. I took it a step further and moved to America. But dread takes more than relocation to dislodge.

Essay · Memoir

What’s a Monarch Got to Do With It?

Queen Elizabeth II died a few days ago. I am not British and do not like the monarchy as an institution, and yet the queen’s image has been one of the watermarks that has shaped the landscape of my life.

When I was born in France, she was already queen across the Channel. By the time I was a teenager, her son, now king, was already hunting with hounds on horseback, and his mother let him do it. I remember seeing photos in the newspapers and thinking that there was no difference between the English and the French nobility. I liked neither. I did not like hunters, period. For that reason, I also did not like French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, an avid hunter. While still in high school, I concluded that there was no difference between aristocracy and republicanism as both their respective representatives showed off their power by romanticizing ritualized violence against those with limited to no means of defending themselves.

I was myself a misguided romantic when I moved to the USA, however. In middle and high school, when I started learning English as a foreign language, people of the Commonwealth were still called British subjects. I knew with certainty that I would not move anywhere that would require me to become the subject of any queen or king, so I chose the United States of America as my terrain of exile. And to those who tried to oppose my move, I would say that everyone in the USA was naturally good and courageous enough to crush the forces of evil so prevalent in the old world. What’s strange is that I was a good student, one who had already learned in books that I was wrong, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. I had to believe that there was a Good God in the USA.

I’m older now. I’ve traveled out of the old world, and I’ve also traveled out of the new world, both literally and figuratively. Here is the conclusion I have reached:

Is there a monarch out there, anywhere, who can ritualize genuine kindness towards the earth and all its lifeforms? Is there a monarch out there who will steadfastly brandish that torch and keep it lighted as we blow life into our dying earth? To that one, I will bow.